Educational reform is a key strategy by which governments attempt to influence the processes and outcomes of schooling. A variety of imperatives, economic, ideological, or political, might motivate such reforms. Yet evidence suggests that such attempts rarely have a profound impact on life in classrooms. When these classrooms are in countries in transition to democracy, the imperatives are especially compelling, but the challenges equally daunting. Additionally, the social justice issues at stake are thrown into relief.
How have primary school teachers in Russia and South Africa experienced the reforms and changes in these new democracies? How have their perceptions and experiences been expressed in their classroom practice? And what are the factors which have influenced individual teachers' responses to educational and social change in these contexts? These questions are important for a number of reasons.
Firstly, while the process seems at times to be thwarted and chaotic, there is a discernible global trend for countries to move towards democratic government. There is clearly wide support for this course, reflected in the fact that representative democracy has become a condition for a state's participation in many international fora and for the receipt of international aid – even though what constitutes a democracy may be interpreted very loosely. Russia and South Africa are important exemplars of this trend. In the early 1990s, the end of communist government in Russia, and the end of apartheid in South Africa, marked the closing of eras within these countries, and also helped to create as well as to reflect an international optimism about transition towards democracy. There is much to learn from studying the processes in these countries.
Secondly, there is the expectation that education has the potential to support this process of democratisation, and that reform to schooling can be linked causally to the creation and maintenance of a democratic society. In both Russia and South Africa, there have been significant changes to education policy accompanying political democratisation. These changes include virtually every aspect of education, from how education is financed and governed, to curriculum and pedagogy. The connection between changes to schooling and democratisation is clearly assumed, but begs for examination.
Thirdly, at the classroom level, this process of democratisation relies on teachers. Their cooperation, their agency, and their capabilities are all essential to the successful implementation of changes to the nature of curriculum and of classroom dynamics. These attitudes, capacities and skills are often implicitly taken for granted by those who generate new education policy. While a growing body of literature has examined the nature of teaching and teachers, and has suggested factors which might affect their role in the process, few studies have looked closely at these factors at work.
Finally, raising doubts about both the inevitability and manageability of democratisation through education, is the fact that the process is far from simple. In reality, it is very complex, and often contrary, partly because it relies so heavily on teachers. Many studies have borne out that the interface between policy and practice has its own dynamics which are not manipulated by edict alone. Teachers are agents who interpret, mediate and transform policy – or interfere, resist and confound its aims, depending on how one views the process and its outcomes. By examining the role that teachers have played in reform implementation in Russia and South Africa, and how they perceive this role, it is hoped that something of these dynamics and of the forces which shape them will be illuminated.
This book is based on a research project which spanned the period 1995_2000, a very significant time in the evolution of democracy in Russia and South Africa. The empirical data were gathered during two periods of fieldwork in each country. The first phase was an exploration of the educational contexts and issues. During the second phase, in order to create a close-grained portrait of teachers within these contexts, case studies were developed of individual primary school teachers – six Russians and six South Africans – in a range of schools. These case studies have explored a number of dimensions of teachers' lives, work and attitudes. Teachers' opinions about political and educational changes and their classroom practice have been examined in the context of their life histories and in the situational constraints and facilitators they experience. In the analysis, the individual cases were juxtaposed to generate a cross-case level of data in addition to the case study level. The findings reveal patterns in terms of teachers' responses to educational change in these new democracies, but also highlight how each case is unique.
This study is situated within the field of comparative education. Comparison of the two countries reveals a number of important similarities but some glaring differences as well. The assumption is that as human beings, all the subjects have some degree of commonality in their responses to change, and that as individuals, a number of personal factors will affect how they have responded to their experiences. The national context is extremely important, as it sets the overall policy agenda and helps to determine such issues as the training of teachers and their working conditions. However, it is only one of the influences acting upon the teachers, and individuals within one country, especially one as culturally and economically diverse as South Africa, can be very different from each other. Therefore, this is not simply a study comparing Russian teachers with South African teachers as two distinct groups; rather, it is, in a sense, a comparative study of a number of individuals from these two countries.
The research basis of this study is within the qualitative research tradition. As such, it reflects an epistemology which acknowledges the subjectivity of human experience, and the importance of individuals' perspectives on their situations. The study was also informed by a number of complementary theoretical perspectives. Symbolic interactionism has been a very useful viewpoint in a study which analyses the relationship between social forces and individual agency, as have Giddens's sociological perspectives on the question of individual identity within a social context of modernity (see Giddens, 1991). Concepts from literature in the critical tradition, which evaluates the potential (and shortcomings) of schooling's role in social transformation, have also been important components of the framework of the study. These perspectives are elaborated further in chapter 2.
The contents of this book are based on a doctoral thesis (Schweisfurth, 2000a). In order to accommodate the format of the series of which it is a part, much has been left out, and many decisions had to be made about what to omit from the original version. In order to maximise the exploration of the study's themes and findings, and to tell the teachers' stories in as much of their rich detail as possible, there is minimal treatment of methodology. There is also a thinner 'backdrop' of country-specific information, and the differences and similarities between the two contexts, as important as they are, are not analysed extensively in a comparative way. Readers interested in these aspects of the study are encouraged to consult the thesis and related publications (Schweisfurth, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2000a, 2000b).
The remainder of the book is divided into five chapters. The first of these, chapter 2, surveys the substantive themes of the study: educational reform and teachers. It considers what research in other contexts has revealed about policy as a process, and about the roles that teachers play at the interface of policy and practice, with special reference to the link between education and democracy. The nature of teacher identity is also explored: is there something about teaching and teachers which helps to shape their attitudes and practice in contexts of change? In addition to problematising the process of reform as it relates to teachers, the chapter also examines critically the social role of schooling, and how the gaps between social needs and classroom realities might begin to be bridged.
In chapter 3, the national contexts of Russia and South Africa are briefly explored. The focus in the discussion is on the reforms and changes to education which have come out of the recent transitions to democracy experienced in the two countries, and these are evaluated critically.
The next two chapters explore the findings of the study. Chapter 4 outlines the cross-case findings, exploring patterns within the experiences and responses of the case study teachers. The common dilemmas experienced by teachers in these contexts, and the means by which they attempt to resolve them – or at least to live with them – are described. In chapter 5, five of the case studies are presented – three from South Africa and two from Russia. Each of these exemplifies some of the patterns detailed in chapter 5, and each is also unique.
In the final, concluding chapter, the findings of the study are situated within theories about teaching, about reforms to education, and about human responses to change, and some tentative suggestions are offered as to how the important process of democratisation in education might be made more viable for its most important agents – teachers.
A note on terminology, which pertains to the whole book but especially to the third chapter: in writing about South Africa, the issue of race inevitably becomes a focal point of discussion. Race and its constituent categories (such as black and white) are social constructs, and many writers use inverted commas to indicate this and to distance themselves from the assumptions embedded in the discourse about race. It would simply be too cumbersome to have used inverted commas throughout this thesis. Additionally, as the associated concepts are very real to those subjects who discuss them, it would not be a very accurate reflection of their perspectives to bracket them. Finally, there are many other concepts – social class, for example, or professionalism – which equally are social constructs. To put inverted commas around all of them would be to pepper the writing with endless unhelpful punctuation.
To position the study theoretically, we turn now to the literature on teachers and educational reform.